Simic, Charles (Vol. 9)
Simic, Charles 1938–
A Yugoslavian-born poet now residing in the United States, Simic is also a translator of contemporary French, Russian, and Yugoslavian poets. The common objects he chooses as the subjects of his poetry are imbued with a strangeness, a cosmic incandescence, revealing the influence of the folk poetry of his native Yugoslavia. His poetic style is one of austere simplicity. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
Often using the rhythms and tonal patterns of children's songs, Charles Simic emulates the simple and the hypnotic in [Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk]. In White, the last collection, Simic lost intensity and penetration; he had crippled his images, so raw and unnerving in earlier Dismantling the Silence, with flippancy and intellectual cuteness. Here, the imagery is strong and frequently luminous. The poetic structures are oral; Simic works with skeletal narratives formed by incremental repetition, traditional dialogues, proverbs, riddles, nursery rhymes. His images are as painfully concrete as the images in oral tradition….
A tension between the visual image and its incantatory form becomes the speculative principle of Simic's thought. In "Solving the Riddle," the poet is caught between hearing what is not there and seeing what everybody else sees. In "Poem," Simic defines the invisible as that which no one remembers, and in "Elementary Cosmogony," the poet becomes an apprentice to the invisible. Deciphering the invisible is the business of the poet—that old romantic theory—and for Simic that task is analogous to solving riddles. Life is a puzzle which deludes and deceives us not because it is a plexus of questions and answers, but because it is an endless series of clues. The poet discovers the clues and, through solution, creates new ones. His poems are no more than clues; they never answer the riddle, but they may create an illusion of order. (p. 47)
The notion of a metaphysical riddle is not unique, but it is always effective. The problem is control. The fact that Simic's poetic structures depend upon traditional oral structures forces the reader to refer not only to the oral forms, but also to their psychological values. A riddle continues to be an oral form, that is, a dramatic exchange. Simic fails only because he supposes that he can duplicate the dynamics which relate him who asks to him who answers on the written page without the psychological satisfaction that accompanies the solution of the riddle. In oral tradition, the superiority of the riddler and the dependence of the uninitiated generate a relationship which counters the function of the riddle in Simic's cosmology. Borrowing the riddle from folklore brings about an unintentional, but disturbing sense of displacement, an irritating belief that Simic does know the answers after all and that he arrogantly withholds that knowledge from us. Simic often titles his riddles as though the titles are the answers, and we must force ourselves to remember that the titles are only other clues. "Mother Tongue", "Solitude", "Brooms", and "Pain" especially encourage this confusion….
Perhaps the solver of clues parades too much; our resistance to the riddler who will not let us answer becomes complete. We no longer believe the poet is translating only. (p. 48)
Zora Devrnja, in Poet and Critic (copyright © Department of English and Speech, Iowa State University), Vol. 9, No. 1, 1975.
Under one guise or another Mr. Simic manages to sound like a religious poet [in Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk]. "Sew stitch/These body rags," he writes in a poem entitled "Pain," "With the last thread of/Daylight sing them/Into wedding-clothes." But, body rags being the title of a recent volume by another poet, one feels that there is something a little easy about this. And the feeling grows stronger by the end of the same poem: "What would I do/Without you without/Your voice/That names and names/The streams and rivers/Of our days on earth." The wit who called W. S. Merwin the Longfellow of his generation had a point: Merwin's is the mannerly style of the 1960s and 1970s, and a great many poets who, like Mr. Simic, may or may not have profited directly from his work, become quite difficult to tell apart from him when they try for an impressive cadence. In his first book, Mr. Simic was bizarre and genuinely wild in some poems about kitchen utensils—his fork seemed to have "crawled out of hell"—and his Polish ancestors swore, wielded meat axes, and howled all night in a dim corner of his imagination. The new poems are more tame, more obviously happy with themselves: Mr. Simic is no longer the strange and splendid trouvaille that cannot be believed until it is seen, he is a professional who needs enough poems for a book. A wearing away of edges happens to all but the bravest poets, yet occasionally Mr. Simic has his old mischief, as when a crumb drops to the floor in what looks like a vacant place: "But somewhere already/The ants are putting on/Their Quakers' hats/And setting out to visit you." (p. 1023)
David Bromwich, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1976, by the University of Georgia), Winter, 1976.
The preference … for the plain phrase and the concrete image goes fantastically far in [Simic's] poems. It is the paradox of his style that his determined concentration on the most common things makes reality strange and, even when terrifying, strangely inviting. The poems have an arresting substantiality about them, so that it seems almost inadequate to absorb them merely by way of the eye….
When his readers think of Simic they think first of brief poems with titles like "Knife," "Stone," "The Spoon," "My Shoes." In such pieces the poet's originality was quite early apparent. They are at once weighty and evasive, and describing them is about as easy as picking up blobs of mercury with mittens on. Here and afterwards Simic's habit has been to look so long and fixedly at common objects that they acquire haloes of strangeness, and become disquietingly animated. The pathetic fallacy, until recently a local effect that poets were cautioned to shun whenever possible, constitutes both a means and an end in these poems as they record one imagination's morbid romance with external reality….
Simic sees operating in the poems of Vasko Popa … an "elemental surrealism coupled undoubtedly with an animistic, myth-making approach to reality." Popa's poems, using the forms of riddles, proverbs and jokes, present themselves as "magic formulas. If they enchant it is to make you see clearly. The language is that of definitions, of primitive books of genesis." We realize from such statements that Simic's style has its origin not merely in a personal intensity of vision, but in a deep appreciation of what folklore has to teach….
[The] folk tradition has yielded Simic a store not only of images, but of poetic forms. Like Popa, he favors the riddle, the proverb, the question posed and answered askew, parallelism and antic repetition. In the use of such strategies the influence of Theodore Roethke may also be taken for granted. (p. 25)
Simic's exploration of the springs of myth is convincing because it is conducted by means of an exciting exploration of language. While his mastery of English is beyond that of most native speakers, this poet's experience of writing in a language not his first must give him a special awareness of the innate mysteriousness of words…. Simic at no time takes language for granted. At his most serious he writes as if he were naming things for the first time: the words, one by one discovered and cunningly placed, make and shape a world before our eyes….
In his latest work Simic's linguistic inventiveness illuminates a wider range of experience than before. Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (an almost over-characteristic title) is not as sternly unified as the collection which preceded it; but its variety of theme and tone largely make up for what it lacks of the earlier volume's force. Comic touches, at times quite broad, are more numerous and relaxed in their application; and there is a further, more important change as well. Human beings had rarely appeared as major subjects in Dismantling the Silence. Now Simic has come to admit them more often to his view of the world, including in the contents of Return, a poem about his father and some remarkable love poems. This seems a healthy development. Although he had been doing amazing things with stones and cutlery, Simic was beginning to run the risk of repetition, even of self-parody….
In pieces like "Breasts" and "That Straightlaced Christian Thing Between Her Legs" Simic's active, individualized vocabulary is especially to be appreciated…. By standing in vivid, ungainly contrast to the conventional language of love, Simic's words make us aware of how falsified and monochromatic a version of our emotions indifferent writers and the intrusive media have been pandering to us. Slapstick and subtle feeling, awkwardness and sophistication strike a balance in these poems, renewing in us a wonder at the complexity of our desires.
Another recent trend in Simic's poetry, formal rather than thematic, is its readiness to explore the possibilities of greater length. The earlier poems, in keeping with their impassive tone, were tight-lipped, rarely going much beyond a page. In the new book there is a more expansive architecture at work in several pieces…. (p. 26)
Simic seems to be able to keep his self-consciousness under control, employing it in making needful esthetic decisions, but effacing it when it threatens to become obtrusive or didactic. Other contemporary poets would do well to emulate this poise of his. Whatever effect his example may have upon our literature, however, Simic's career is bound to be a lonely one because of the singularity of his gift. Of this singularity he is thoroughly and unrepentantly aware:
Inside my empty bottle
I was constructing a lighthouse
While all the others
Were building ships.
Robert B. Shaw, "Charles Simic: An Appreciation," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 24, 1976, pp. 25-7.
Charles Simic's efforts to interpret the relationship between the animate and inanimate have led to some of the most strikingly original poetry of our time, a poetry shockingly stark in its concepts, imagery, and language. Of course all poetry depends on words, but Simic attempts to force language to new levels. (p. 145)
In his first book, What the Grass Says …, the speaker plays a prominent dramatic role. There are few difficulties. The first poem, "Summer Morning," is typical…. The poem begins with the poet. Time and again the "I" stands at the head of a stanza, placing the writer squarely in the center of his poem. We see him naked on his bed, and the phrase "like this" pushes his figure at us, a figure through which we then find the rest of the world reduced to a vague "they" and the smell of damp hay and horses. (p. 146)
Elsewhere in the book we see men lined up for army physicals, working on the railroad, and marching—all joyless. A boss wants a robot for his worker. A woman's finger goes down a list of war casualties. Soldiers take a man out to hang him.
Thus the poet wishes to join not people but objects, to absorb things or be absorbed by them. He is "happy to be a stone." He finds kinship with a needle. His shoes are the "secret face of my inner life." (p. 147)
Time and again he speaks of things in religious terms. Knives in a butcher shop glitter "like altars/In a dark church." He is baptized in the sight of a dying pig. He addresses his shoes as sacred objects…. Things are, simply put, sacramental. That is, they are sacred signs of a spiritual reality by which man may attain grace, for in Simic's poetry there is no conflict whatsoever between God and the natural world He created. The poet finds truth as Emerson and Whitman found it, through nature. (pp. 147-48)
In his second book, Somewhere Among Us a Stone is Taking Notes …, we find a subtle change in the speaker's role. Here the poet stands, as it were, to one side, like a lecturer showing slides. We are aware of his presence, but we focus on the subject.
"Needle" in his earlier volume begins with a comparison of needle and poet. There are no particular difficulties. The poet simply states the comparison, then develops it.
Needle, we are of one kind:
The kind that pierces and mends.
His later needle poem, however, leaves out explicit comparisons. The poet is nowhere to be seen, though we are aware of his presence.
Whenever a needle gets lost
She makes a perfect circle.
Her tiny eye becomes even tinier
So the silence can thread itself in it….
Here the relationship of needle to human is implicit in its sex, its tongue, its eye. The poem depends on contrast rather than elaboration. We become aware of the interaction between soft and sharp, dull and pointed, animate and inanimate. The needle takes its place not in the poet's personal life but in the life of the universe.
As the poet recedes in his poems, becoming more absorbed in objects, we find a corresponding increase in his concern for language. (pp. 148-49)
In "Stone Inside a Stone" the poet actually enters the stone and loses his individual identity. As a result the poem seems to speak objective rather than subjective truths. Poet and stone communicate instinctively:
Once in my hand
The fingers speak to it in its own language
His task becomes the translation of this tactile language into another—hence his strange images: fossil of the wind, stone with a flower at its heart, stones as death's testicles. Only at the end does the focus shift to the poet.
I hear the steps of the stone.
I lift them with my tongue
To keep myself in shape
For an unknown time.
Communication between man and objects takes place in silence wherein the poet hears the tiny voices of things. And since silence is itself a means of communication the poet [in "Dismantling the Silence"] gives instructions for dismantling it so that its nature may be discovered. First one takes down the ears. When he gets to the bones, he slips them under his skin, thus becoming a part of the silence himself.
It is now completely dark.
Slowly and with patience
Feel its heart. You will need to haul
A heavy chest of drawers
Into its emptiness
To make it creak
On its wheel
Having dismantled the silence, the reader finds it empty—or almost empty. He is left with the problem of mortal man trying to understand immortal things. Words strain to express the inexpressible. A chest of drawers (a typical everyday Simic symbol) is hauled into the dismantled silence "to make it creak/on its wheel." There is a sense of direction in the silence after all, though one may not be able to discern it immediately. Silence, like the soul of man, continues to exist when the body is dismantled. (pp. 149-50)
As the figure of the poet withdraws, the poetry may become cryptic. Sometimes we are not certain of the voice in the poem. Take "The Wind," a simple poem of two lines:
Touching me, you touch
The country that has exiled you.
Who exactly is touching what or whom? Who or what is speaking? Is "you" the wind, the reader, or the poet? If the reader touches the wind, it is a symbol of nature which has exiled man. But if the poem is addressed to the wind, then man is the active agent; he has shut nature out of his life. And the poem might be addressed to the reader or to a lover whose touch is like a wind on the skin of the poet. Yet all the important things in the poem remain the same regardless of details—the sense of touch, the alienation of two who were once close. (p. 150)
Simic's first book from a major publisher, Dismantling the Silence …, contains many of the poems in his first two volumes. Though "Summer Morning" is included, the book begins with "Forest," a dramatic monologue by the forest itself. The figure of the poet becomes more and more absorbed by his world, and the new poems seem even more haunting, even less accessible, than previous work. The speaker seems remote not only from this world but from this universe. If he has discovered the language at the heart of the stone, it sounds at first unintelligible.
What can one make of the beginning of "Eating Out the Angel of Death"?
Now my body is the evening sky
And I'm the smoke rising towards it,
Slowly since I watch for the wind,
Carefully, since I'm blind
And my dog and cane have been taken away….
Once again we find language pushed to its limits as the poet, a barbarian with a barbarian's tools, attempts to take us with him into "an invisible empire." The synecdoche of fist for man is startlingly appropriate to a barbarian whose "open fist" emphasizes a coming metamorphosis like that of the poet who will be drunk by the stars.
Yet the section remains stubbornly obscure. How can the poet watch for the wind in the second stanza when he is blind? Can a climb have a fist? One suspects the poet intends to take the reader with him to the boundaries of language and meaning—and perhaps beyond…. These difficulties continue in White …, Simic's longest poem to date. Here he turns to the interpretation of one of the attributes of matter, exploring in some detail the relationship of objects to their perception in the mind. He notes the different aspects of white. It is the color of the bride and the color of blindness, stitched (to use a favorite Simic metaphor) into the fabric of the universe. And he describes his poetic method once again in tactile terms:
Touch what I can
Of the quick,
Speak and then wait,
As if this light
Will continue to linger
On the threshold.
He touches the color, then attempts to translate this touch into words.
Parts one and two consist of several short ten line mediations in which the color white appears and reappears like a musical theme. Indeed, the entire poem can be compared to music written as theme and variations. Each time white appears we find it in a somewhat different context, one that gives it additional meaning. It is a symbol of death, of everyday life, of hope, and the color of the paper on which the poet makes his marks…. (pp. 151-53)
[Throughout] the poem we see the shift in narrative voice that has characterized Simic's progression as a poet, the voice becoming that of its object, its theme.
Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk … begins, strangely enough, with a poem similar to "Summer Morning." The poet lies asleep, a bird calls him, and he ascends into the heavens. But unlike the earlier poem in which he simply floated off, here he is called, summoned by language:
In the throat of that unknown bird
There's a vowel of my name.
This return to identity marks a new phase in Simic's work. Several poems in this volume contain personal, almost idiosyncratic statements by the poet, as if, having surrendered his individuality in his previous books, he now attempts to reassert it…. (p. 154)
[Simic's] desire for unity and diversity leads him for the first time to overtly sexual poems such as "Breasts" and "That Straightlaced Christian Thing Between Her Legs." In such work the poet's tactile approach to knowledge and language gains a new intensity. Nipples become "vowels of delicious clarity/For the little red schoolhouse of our mouths." Breasts are "two sour buns" which the tongue honors. In sexual union the poet can be both inside and outside his body, on earth and in heaven, in the present and in the future. He can possess the objects which nourish him physically and spiritually while retaining his own identity….
Nevertheless he longs for more permanent union. "Travelling" shows the poet as a sack, but here, as in "The Bird," we focus upon him and his search for language. A ragpicker takes the poet-sack out at dawn, putting various objects into him and commenting on each. The tie was climbed by a man as it hung from his neck, and now he cannot descend. The overcoat is named Ahab and wants all its black threads removed. The boots have drowned. Yet beyond its initial assertion of the symbolic importance of the objects (the tie, the overcoat, the boots), language is unable to go. Facts overwhelm it. The poet's only comment, the refrain of the poem, is that he has none: "But I say nothing, what can a sack say?"
Simic continues to distrust abstract thought and generalizations, and his distrust still extends to the language itself. In "Poem" language is a lullaby, a memory, glossing over the facts of existence. "This is the story/Afraid to go on" begins another poem, and the story fears because it must use language with inevitable falsifications. The story regrets "the loss of its purity" and retreats into objects. (p. 155)
In his work to date one of Charles Simic's primary concerns has been the relationship of an individual man to the objects in the world around him, for the natural world, as Simic perceives it, is innately good and leads, as did the natural world of Emerson and Whitman, directly to truth. But the expression of that truth in the twentieth century does not come easy: the language of things differs from the language of man, particularly man in society. The poet apprehends objects through his sense of touch, and he must translate that touch with its accompanying intuitive, cryptic knowledge into imprecise human speech.
But for all its deficiencies language remains his tool because it is the only one he has. It falsifies experience by presenting it as something else, namely language, but the juxtaposition of language and experience may itself partially explain the world. (pp. 156-57)
Victor Contoski, "Charles Simic: Language at the Stone's Heart," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1977 by Chicago Review), Vol. 48, No. 4, 1977, pp. 145-57.